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Understanding the social impacts of tourism is vital to ensuring the sustainable management of the tourism industry. There are positive social impacts of tourism, demonstrating benefits to both the local community and the tourists. There are also negative social impacts of tourism.
In this article I will explain what the most common social impacts of tourism are and how these are best managed. At the end of the post I have also included a handy reading list for anybody studying travel and tourism or for those who are interested in learning more about travel and tourism management.
The social impacts of tourism
Firstly, we need to understand what is meant by the term ‘social impacts of tourism’.
To put it simply, social impacts of tourism are;
“The effects on host communities of direct and indirect relations with tourists, and of interaction with the tourism industry”
This is also often referred to as socio-cultural impacts.
Tourism is, at its core, an interactive service. This means that host-guest interaction is inevitable. This can have significant social/socio-cultural impacts.
These social impacts can be seen as benefits or costs (good or bad). I will explain these below.
Positive social impacts of tourism
There are many social benefits of tourism, demonstrating positive social impacts. These might include; preserving the local culture and heritage; strengthening communities; provision of social services; commercialisation of culture and art; revitalisation of customs and art forms and the preservation of heritage.
Preserving Local Culture
It is the local culture that the tourists are often coming to visit.
Tourists visit Beijing to learn more about the Chinese Dynasties. Tourists visit Thailand to taste authentic Thai food. Tourists travel to Brazil to go to the Rio Carnival, to mention a few…
Many destinations will make a conserved effort to preserve and protect the local culture. This often contributes to the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, the protection of local heritage, and a renaissance of indigenous cultures, cultural arts and crafts.
In one way, this is great! Cultures are preserved and protected and globalisation is limited. BUT, I can’t help but wonder if this is always natural? We don’t walk around in Victorian corsets or smoke pipes anymore…
Our social settings have changed immensely over the years. And this is a normal part of evolution! So is it right that we should try to preserve the culture of an area for the purposes of tourism? Or should we let them grow and change, just as we do? Something to ponder on I guess…
Tourism can be a catalyst for strengthening a local community.
Events and festivals of which local residents have been the primary participants and spectators are often rejuvenated and developed in response to tourist interest. I certainly felt this was the way when I went to the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. The community atmosphere and vibe were just fantastic!
The jobs created by tourism can also be a great boost for the local community. Aside from the economic impacts created by enhanced employment prospects, people with jobs are happier and more social than those without a disposable income.
Local people can also increase their influence on tourism development, as well as improve their job and earnings prospects, through tourism-related professional training and development of business and organisational skills.
Read also: Economic leakage in tourism explained
Provision of Social Services
The tourism industry requires many facilities/ infrastructure to meet the needs of the tourist. This often means that many developments in an area as a result of tourism will be available for use by the locals also.
Local people often gained new roads, new sewage systems, new playgrounds, bus services etc as a result of tourism. This can provide a great boost to their quality of life and is a great example of a positive social impact of tourism.
Commercialisation of Culture and Art
Tourism can see rise to many commercial business, which can be a positive social impact of tourism. This helps to enhance the community spirit as people tend to have more disposable income as a result.
These businesses may also promote the local cultures and arts. Museums, shows and galleries are fantastic way to showcase the local customs and traditions of a destination. This can help to promote/ preserve local traditions.
Revitalisation of Culture and Art
Some destinations will encourage local cultures and arts to be revitalised. This may be in the form of museum exhibitions, in the way that restaurants and shops are decorated and in the entertainment on offer, for example.
This may help promote traditions that may have become distant.
Preservation of Heritage
Many tourists will visit the destination especially to see its local heritage. It is for this reason that many destinations will make every effort to preserve its heritage.
This could include putting restrictions in place or limiting tourist numbers, if necessary. This is often an example of careful tourism planning and sustainable tourism management.
This text by Hyung You Park explains the principles of heritage tourism in more detail.
Negative social impacts of tourism
Unfortunately, there are a large number of socio-cultural costs on the host communities. These negative social impacts include; social change; changing values; increased crime and gambling; changes in moral behaviour; changes in family structure and roles; problems with the tourist-host relationship and the destruction of heritage.
Social change is basically referring to changes in the way that society acts or behaves. Unfortunately, there are many changes that come about as a result of tourism that are not desirable.
There are many examples throughout the world where local populations have changed because of tourism. Perhaps they have changed the way that they speak or the way that they dress. Perhaps they have been introduced to alcohol through the tourism industry or they have become resentful of rich tourists and turned to crime. These are just a few examples of the negative social impacts of tourism.
Globalisation and the Destruction of Preservation and Heritage
Globalisation is the way in which the world is becoming increasingly connected. We are losing our individuality and gaining a sense of ‘global being’, whereby we more and more alike than ever before.
Globalisation is inevitable in the tourism industry because of the interaction between tourists and hosts, which typically come from different geographic and cultural backgrounds. It is this interaction that encourage us to become more alike.
Here are some examples:
1- When I went on the Jungle Book tour on my travels through Goa, the tourists were giving the Goan children who lived in the area sweets. These children would never have eaten such sweets should they not have come into contact with the tourists.
2- When I travelled to The Gambia I met a local worker (known as a ‘bumster’) who was wearing a Manchester United football top. When I asked him about it he told me that he was given the top by a tourist who visited last year. If it was not for said tourist, he would not have this top.
3- In Thailand, many workers have exchanged their traditional work of plowing the fields to work in the cities, in the tourism industry. They have learnt to speak English and to eat Western food. If it were not for the tourists they would have a different line of work, they would not speak English and they would not choose to eat burger and chips for their dinner!
Many people believe globalisation to be a bad thing. BUT, there are also some positives. Think about this…
Do you want an ‘authentic’ squat toilet in your hotel bathroom or would you rather use a Western toilet? Are you happy to eat rice and curry for breakfast as the locals would do or do you want your cornflakes? Do you want to struggle to get by when you don’t speak the local language or are you pleased to find somebody who speaks English?
When we travel, most tourists do want a sense of ‘familiar’. And globalisation helps us to get that!
You can learn more about globalisation in this post- What is globalisation? A simple explanation.
Loss of Authenticity
Along similar lines to globalisation is the loss of authenticity that often results from tourism.
Authenticity is essentially something that is original or unchanged. It is not fake or reproduced in any way.
The Western world believe that a tourist destination is no longer authentic when their cultural values and traditions change. But I would argue is this not natural? Is culture suppose to stay the same or it suppose to evolve throughout each generation?
Take a look at the likes of the long neck tribe in Thailand or the Maasai Tribe in Africa. These are two examples of cultures which have remained ‘unchanged’ for the sole purpose of tourism. They appear not to have changed the way that they dress, they way that they speak or the way that they act in generations, all for the purpose of tourism.
To me, however, this begs the question- is it actually authentic? In fact, is this not the exact example of what is not authentic? The rest of the world have modern electricity and iPhones, they watch TV and buy their clothes in the nearest shopping mall. But because tourists want an ‘authentic’ experience, these people have not moved on with the rest of the world, but instead have remained the same.
I think there is also an ethical discussion to be had here, but I’ll leave that for another day…
Read also: Environmental impacts of tourism
Standardisation and Commercialisation
Similarly, destinations risk standardisation in the process of satisfying tourists’ desires for familiar facilities and experiences.
While landscape, accommodation, food and drinks, etc., must meet the tourists’ desire for the new and unfamiliar, they must at the same time not be too new or strange because few tourists are actually looking for completely new things (think again about the toilet example I have previously).
Tourists often look for recognisable facilities in an unfamiliar environment, like well-known fast-food restaurants and hotel chains. Tourist like some things to be standardised (the toilet, their breakfast, their drinks, the language spoken etc), but others to be different (dinner options, music, weather, tourist attractions etc).
Do we want everything to become ‘standardised’ though? I know I miss seeing the little independent shops that used to fill the high streets in the UK. Now it’s all chains and multinational corporations. Sure, I like Starbucks (my mug collection is coming on quite nicely!), but I also love the way that there are no Starbucks in Italy. There’s something great about trying out a traditional, yet unfamiliar coffee shop, or any independant place for that matter.
I personally think that tourism industry stakeholders should proceed with caution when it comes to ‘standardisation’. Sure, give the tourists that sense of familiar that they are looking for. But don’t dilute the culture and traditions of the destination that they are coming to visit, because if it feels too much like home….. well, maybe they will just stay at home next time? Just a little something to think about…
On a less philosophical note, another negative social impact of tourism that can have significant consequences is culture clashes.
Because tourism involves movement of people to different geographical locations cultural clashes can take place as a result of differences in cultures, ethnic and religious groups, values, lifestyles, languages and levels of prosperity.
The attitude of local residents towards tourism development may unfold through the stages of euphoria, where visitors are very welcome, through apathy, irritation and potentially antagonism when anti-tourist attitudes begin to grow among local people. This is represented in Doxey’s Irritation Index, as shown below.
Culture clashes can also be exasperated by the fundamental differences in culture between the hosts and the tourists.
There is likely to be economic inequality between locals and tourists who are spending more than they usually do at home. This can cause resentment from the hosts towards the tourists, particularly when they see them wearing expensive jewellery or using plush cameras etc that they know they can’t afford themselves.
Further to this, tourists often, out of ignorance or carelessness, fail to respect local customs and moral values.
Think about it. Is it right to go topless on a beach if within the local culture it is unacceptable to show even your shoulders?
There are many examples of ways that tourists offend the local population, often unintentionally. Did you know that you should never put your back to a Buddha? Or show the sole of your feet to a Thai person? Or show romantic affection in public in the Middle East?
A little education in this respect could go a long way, but unfortunately, many travellers are completely unaware of the negative social impacts that their actions may have.
Increase in crime, gambling and moral behaviour
Crime rates typically increase with the growth and urbanization of an area and the growth of mass tourism is often accompanied by increased crime.
The presence of a large number of tourists with a lot of money to spend and often carrying valuables such as cameras and jewellery increases the attraction for criminals and brings with it activities like robbery and drug dealing.
Although tourism is not the cause of sexual exploitation, it provides easy access to it e.g. prostitution and sex tourism. Therefore, tourism can contribute to rises in the numbers of sex workers in a given area. I have seen this myself in many places including The Gambia and Thailand.
Lastly, gambling is a common occurrence as a result of tourism. Growth of casinos and other gambling facilities can encourage not only the tourists to part with their cash, but also the local population.
Social impacts of tourism: Conclusion
As I have demonstrated in this post, there are many social impacts of tourism. Whilst some impacts are positive, most unfortunately are negative impacts.
Hopefully this post has helped you to think carefully about the impacts that your actions may have on the local community that you are visiting. I also hope that it has encouraged some deeper thinking with regards to issues such as globalisation, authenticity and standardisation.
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Social impacts of tourism reading list
- The Business of Tourism Management– an introduction to key aspects of tourism, and to the practice of managing a tourism business.
- Managing Sustainable Tourism– tackles the tough issues of tourism such as negative environmental impact and cultural degradation, and provides answers that don’t sacrifice positive economic growth.
- Tourism Management: An Introduction– An introductory text that gives its reader a strong understanding of the dimensions of tourism, the industries of which it is comprised, the issues that affect its success, and the management of its impact on destination economies, environments and communities.
- Responsible Tourism: Using tourism for sustainable development– A textbook about the globally vital necessity of realising sustainable tourism.
- Worldwide Destinations: The geography of travel and tourism– a unique text that explores tourism demand, supply, organisation and resources for a comprehensive range of destinations and every country worldwide.